Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Paul Robeson, Pruden's Purple and Garden Peach tomatoes

According to the National Weather Service, June, July and August 2009 were the wettest June, July and August period in Portland, Maine since records first began in 1871. This meant a disastrous year for Maine vegetable gardens, especially tomatoes. Many people I know lost all of their tomato plants in August due to late blight, which is a fungus that thrives in wet, cool, clammy weather and can kill an entire plant or garden in just a few days. Somehow, most of our tomato plants were spared the full blown death onslaught of late blight that many neighbors suffered, and now that we have had very dry, sunny weather for the past three weeks, the blight we do have is subsiding and the tomatoes are ripening as we had hoped.

This year we planted three heirloom tomato varieties and a new open-pollinated cherry tomato developed in 1997 by a gardener and plant breeder from Garland, Maine who goes by the name "Relentless." We grew all of them from seed in late March with seeds from Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine, one of the best seed companies in the country. Fedco is especially useful because they specialize in vegetable varieties that have been field-proven to prosper in northern and central New England. For those of us trying to grow long season, hot weather loving plants like tomatoes and peppers in Maine, buying seeds from Fedco saves on a lot of disappointment.

The heirloom varieties are Paul Robeson (a "black" tomato originating in Russia); Pruden's Purple (very similar to Pink Brandywine); and Garden Peach, a true oddball that looks very much like a small peach and tastes very sweet. The cherry tomato variety is called "Be My Baby."

Pruden's Purple in front, Paul Robeson behind. The largest tomatoes are about a pound.

Paul Robeson Tomato

Contrary to its varietal name ("black tomato"), Paul Robeson tomatoes are not black. When fully ripe, the bottom of the fruit is a deep scarlet orange that grades into green at the stem, although some fruits will be entirely cast in a color that is equal parts orange, brown and green. The "black" moniker comes from its color when sliced, which is a dark, "smoky" shade of pinkish scarlet, almost like a rare steak. Most fruits range from 1/2 to 3/4s of a pound. Despite the horrific weather this year, our Paul Robeson plants have been quite prolific, with ripe tomatoes in late August and 6-8 large fruits per plant so far. Like most heirlooms they are "indeterminate" and require staking or caging their 5-6 foot high stems. They are very "meaty" with little watery pulp. Because of the ever present late blight this year (which thrives in shade and moisture), we learned quickly to keep the ripening tomatoes off the ground and up in the air so that the breeze and sun can keep them dry.

Pruden's Purple Tomato

Pruden's Purple is a potato leaf heirloom with very large, oval fruits (up to 1.5 pounds) that turn a deep pinkish scarlet grading into yellow orange at the stem when fully ripe. They are similar to Pink Brandywine, and contrary to their name, are not purple. Because the fruits get so big, they take a month or more to ripen and require staking and tying to keep the heavy fruits from breaking the stems. The plants are big and gangly, reaching over 6 feet tall with stems at ground level that can be almost an inch thick. The flesh is a bright, pink-scarlet that looks like an extra-reddish watermelon. Like the Paul Robeson's, the Pruden's Purple ripen slowly and the unripe fruits are susceptible to rot, slugs and blight if hidden inside the plant, near the ground and in deep shade. As a preventive measure, we have started picking fully grown fruits that are "almost ripe" (just starting to show color) and letting them ripen on a table rather than risk losing them to rot, blight and munching slugs. I like Pruden's Purple because they are almost as big as a musk melon and are beautifully colored and shaped.

Very few Garden Peach tomatoes have such a pronounced proboscis, but this one does.

Garden Peach Tomato

We grew Garden Peach tomatoes last year and found them prolific, long-lasting (right up to Oct. 17, the killing frost in Augusta, Maine), great tasting (very sweet and non-acidy) and so strange looking that we had to grow them again. People visiting our house look at the picked Garden Peach tomatoes on the table and ask, "What are these things?" Often they are quite surprised when I tell them they are tomatoes. Like a peach, they turn a bright, sunny yellow when ripe, with a blush of pink spreading from the base. And like a peach, the fruit has a tiny, but noticeable "peach fuzz" all over its skin. They are truly odd ducks and are about the only tomato I will eat raw (I'm not much for eating raw tomatoes) because they are very sweet and mild. Our plants this year got hit pretty hard by late blight and many of the half-ripened fruits turned brown and scabby on the vine. But because the plants are so prolific (think 30 or more pool ball sized fruits), we still are getting quite a lot of them.

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